Black feminism

Race and Sexuality: Black Feminist Perspectives

This ongoing denial of Black women’s victim status is a crucial topic discussed in Black feminist scholarship, particularly at the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality.

St. Louis rapper, Sexxy Red, recently announced her second pregnancy, following a privacy violation where explicit content was posted on her Instagram. Despite speculation that the leak was intentional, due to her bold persona, Sexxy Red denies these claims.

The suggestion that Sexxy Red would willingly use Instagram to premiere her sex tape eliminates the potential for her to be a victim of revenge porn.

This ongoing denial of Black women’s victim status is a crucial topic discussed in Black feminist scholarship, particularly at the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality.

The Intersection of Race, Gender, and Sexuality: A Historical Overview

The historical perception of sexuality for Black women is rooted in several controlling images that stem from European settler colonialism and the African slave trade.

The term “Sable-Saffron Venus” refers to a pre-existing controlling image that characterized Black women as sexually abnormal and suitable only for roles of concubinage or breeding. Emerging before the “Hottentot Venus” Saartjie Baartman, this image deeply influenced perceptions of Black women in Europe and the Caribbean.

Expressed through art and literature, it contributed to early racialized and sexualized narratives that justified the exploitation and oppression of Black women. The imagery contrasted Black women against white femininity, forming a part of broader bio-political strategies aimed at managing racial purity in colonial settings. Its legacy persists in contemporary stereotypes like the welfare queen and the strong Black woman.

Similarly, the term “Jezebel” refers to a historical stereotype that characterizes Black women as hypersexual and promiscuous, serving as a counterimage to the idealized white Victorian lady of the 19th century. Originating from European accounts that conflated African cultural practices with promiscuity, the Jezebel image was perpetuated to justify the exploitation of Black women’s bodies for reproductive labor during slavery.

While often framed as an outcome of Black women’s supposed promiscuity, the trope overlooks the limited agency that these women had over their own sexual lives. This imagery served to both uphold the taboo around interracial couplingand fuel fears of a mixed-race population, even as it masked the systemic rape and coercion Black women endured.

Black feminists critically challenge these historical representations by focusing on Black women’s experiences to reveal how intersecting oppressions like racism and sexism shape perceptions of Black female sexuality. They deconstruct these stereotypes to advocate for a different understanding of Black womanhood and sexuality. Additionally, they stress the importance of recognizing Black women’s agency and individuality, countering cultural assumptions and societal structures.

For instance, hip hop scholar Keysha Jennings reports that Black women challenge dominant ideas about sexuality, dispute respectability politics, and express their agency in digital spaces through hashtags like #HotGirlSummer and #ProfessionalBlackGirl, as well as through viral challenges.

This work demonstrates that when Black women define their own sexuality, they perceive the lived experience of race, gender, and sexuality as a source of empowerment, rather than a form of dehumanization.

Unveiling Dual Marginalization: Black Feminist Theories on the Confluence of Race and Sexuality

Black feminist scholars across various disciplines have formulated theories on race, gender, and sexuality. They focus on how these aspects shape society, particularly in relation to Black women and the broader African diaspora.

2023 Berggruen Prize winner Patricia Hill Collins pioneered the theory of controlling images in 1986 to articulate the stereotypes that demean Black women and exploit their labor. These images are born out of ideologies that employ contrasting binaries to impose hierarchical differences among social groups, ultimately facilitating the domination of one group over another.

Particularly for Black women, this ideology brands them as incapable of embodying “true womanhood,” which is characterized by attributes such as purity, piety, submissiveness, and domesticity. Notably, these expectations are based on a standard set by middle-class white women.

The intersection of race and sexuality plays a significant role in these controlling images, as Black women are cast into stereotypical roles such as the mammymatriarch, welfare mother, Black lady, and Jezebel, all of which carry racial and sexual implications.

The ‘culture of dissemblance‘, a term coined by historian Darlene Clark Hine, encapsulates the strategies employed by Black women to resist oppression by concealing their authentic selves within a hostile society. This approach, which emerged at the intersection of racial hostility, class conflict, and gender expectations, served as a mechanism to safeguard Black women’s inner space and emotional resources. Simultaneously, it highlights how the intersection of race and sexuality influences Black women’s lives due to negative stereotyping.

In response, Black women adopted strategies of silence and the creation of alternative images to counter these stereotypes. This resistance was institutionalized through the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACW) in 1896, which actively combated negative portrayals and advocated for a more positive and nuanced representation of Black women’s sexuality.

While these theoretical frameworks highlight the challenges of the intertwined nature of race, gender, and sexuality in the Americas, more recent Black feminist theories also propose a solution.

The term “politics of pleasure,” coined by hip-hop feminist Joan Morgan, emphasizes the exploration and understanding of Black women’s sexual autonomy, agency, and engagement with pleasure. Contrary to Black feminist narratives that often focus on sexual violence and silence around Black women’s sexuality, the politics of pleasure aims to reframe Black female sexuality by focusing on desire and agency.

From a sex-positive Black feminist perspective, the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality is viewed as a pathway to empowerment, not oppression.

The Sexualization and Stereotyping of Black Women in Popular Culture

Black women often experience intersecting oppressions related to race, gender, and sexuality in various social contexts, including politics and popular culture. A case in point is rapper Megan Thee Stallion‘s experience. She faced intense scrutiny from social media users who doubted her claim of being a shooting victim.

Supporters of the convicted, rapper Tory Lanez, invoked the societal mistrust of Black women to depict Megan Thee Stallion as a Jezebel, implying her sex-positive lyrics equated to sexual promiscuity. This stereotype historically suggests that a sexually active Black woman like Megan Thee Stallion couldn’t possibly be a victim of violence.

Thus, controlling images in popular culture leads to the dehumanization of Black women, a notion reinforced by the violent and hypersexualized imagery historically associated with them in rap music.

Yet, popular culture also serves as a platform for Black feminist expression, where Black women can redefine their sexualities.

For instance, Megan Thee Stallion’s album Traumazine released in 2022, embodies a rejection of degradation and an affirmation of sexual agency. Specifically, in the song “Ms. Nasty,” Megan Thee Stallion combines the respectful title “Miss” and the degrading term “Nasty.” She also rejects the label “hoe” and instead embraces the title “pimp bitch.”

In Black feminist media studies, scholars explore Black women’s representations in popular culture to highlight how mass media disseminates oppressive ideologies related to race, gender, and sexuality.

Cultural critic Aisha Durham‘s concept of hip hop feminist media studies investigates the marginalization and misrepresentation of Black women in hip hop culture, and their oversexualized portrayal. This approach uses a media literacy framework to explore the real and imagined lives of hip hop generation women of color, revealing how their complex role in hip hop culture influences their oppositional consciousness.

In summary, this field’s research unveils the pervasive controlling images of Black women in media and how Black women create representations that reflect their experiences.

Final Thoughts on the Intersectionality of Race and Sexuality

Black feminism‘s view on the intersection of race and sexuality allows us to challenge harmful stereotypes oppressing Black women, and provides insight into their unique struggles and resilience.

Additionally, recognizing intersectionality enriches our understanding of Black women’s identities and their right to shape their own narratives.

In light of the rich history and ongoing struggles faced by Black women, it is crucial that we push for representations of Black women’s sexuality that are rooted in Black feminist thought, rather than oppressive ideologies or controlling images.

True sex positivity necessitates striving to create a society where Black women can express their sexuality freely, without fear of judgement or violence.